There isn't much in the gaming world that can stand up to the sheer fun experienced when the player can implement their own ideas successfully. Mercenaries caters to this feeling very well indeed, allowing enough freedom for the player to feel like they have really achieved something when their meticulously planned raid on a North Korean base plays out without a hitch. The same goes for when a botched mission is rescued by some quick thinking - calling in an A-10 to bust some tanks, for example. The feeling even comes about when no planning or forethought is put into a mission, and an all-guns-blazing approach results in a swift conclusion to a situation. To surmise: Mercenaries caters for the 'fun gene.'
'Choices are there to be made, and they really help the game pull itself away from mediocrity'
Set in one of the current favourite dystopias of games design - near-future, nuke-toting, war-torn North Korea - Mercenaries gives the player a pretty basic setup, story wise. Given the choice of one of three members of special government contract group, Executive Operations (that's ExOps, abbv. fans), - the burly American, the stealthy Brit or the agile, though none-too-subtle Swede - the player is thrust into the middle of a warzone. The landscape has been decimated, with few towns having all their buildings intact and random skirmishes breaking out left and right. A back story is crowbarred in on the numerous loading screens, but it isn't exactly an experience that relies heavily on narrative. The fact of the matter is, you're there and you want to earn some coin, along with not getting killed, with the ultimate goal of collecting the bounty on the head of General Song, the big bad guy who has nuclear missiles trained on targets around the world. Your character, however, seems less interesting in averting nuclear catastrophe and more interested in the small matter of the $100 million bounty on the General's head. Some could say the game has a 'questionable' morality. But this reviewer is not some. Money drives the character, and money drives the player.
The four non-hostile factions involved have totally different agendas too, with the crafty Russian Mafia out to capitalise on the confusion of war and make a quick buck; the Allied Nations, who seem to comprise entirely of Americans, out to restore peace and serenity in the world, along with averting nuclear disaster; the South Koreans out to make their mark and keep their northern neighbours away from their homeland; and the Chinese feeling the need to muscle in and attempt to make North Korea a part of the People's Republic. All sides employ the player through the game for a number of missions - espionage, escort, all-out carnage - and though the basic mission structure suffers from a lack of variety, the game more than makes up for it with the immense variety in which contracts can be completed. The player could adopt a stealthy approach, disguising themselves in a vehicle and infiltrating the target area without hassle. Or, they could adopt a less shrewd method and call in a carpet bombing spree, wiping out the entire area. Choices are there to be made, and they really help the game pull itself away from mediocrity.
Striking a balance between which factions to help is another interesting touch, and though not original in the slightest (think the gang statue indicators on GTA 2), they add another element of strategy to proceedings. Some missions undertaken will be direct action against another friendly group - the Chinese, for example, are not particular fans of the South Koreans and often call for you to attack their bases and troops. Obviously this kind of action doesn't put you in good stead with the faction which you are being aggressive towards, and eventually they will end up trying to shoot your face off. Fortunately, things can be put right again with a swift bribe, ranging from $50,000 all the way up to a million - money can erase all bad feeling in this world -, or the player can carry out a number of smaller actions that increase their standing by a lesser amount: finding national treasures, collecting blueprints for WMD's, blowing up statues of Song as well as a few other actions. As long as a faction dislikes you though, the player cannot accept contracts from them, which means valuable information on the 'Deck of 52' is lost, leading to bounties on General Song's most senior aides getting missed (the playing card premise of course being made famous in the recent real-life Gulf War 2 - the higher the card, the more important the person, with the Ace of Spades being the highest of the high.). A simple and welcome method and one that is easy to get used to.
'It isn't all good though, unfortunately. The game is not the most polished example'
The inevitable GTA comparison pops up with regards to the 'go anywhere' style of play involved in Mercenaries, but the initial claims of the game being GTA-in-a-war are unfounded, with the game being far more linear than Rockstar's crime 'em up. The freedom is there to travel as the player sees fit, but the playing area is quite small - and though there are two maps, they can still be traversed by helicopter in less than a minute. This isn't much of a criticism however, as the maps are easy to navigate and well populated with allies, enemies and civilians.
One factor that most people will adore about this game is the fact that all buildings can be destroyed. Satisfying explosions and meaty weaponry make for some smile-inducing devastation - blowing stuff up is fun. Though the primitive delights associated with all-out destruction are apparent in abundance, the demolition duties can also form a part of the player's strategy - as mentioned before, the freedom of choice regarding how to carry out the missions adds a great deal to the experience. The explosions are substantial and look delightful, and though the rest of the game looks more than adequate, the explosions are a cut above.
It isn't all good though, unfortunately. The game is not the most polished example, with clipping being a particular annoyance the player has to deal with - different road surfaces, for example, often act like an obstacle when two join: a road turning into a bridge being the biggest culprit of this. Apparently, flat roads cause cars to veer up in the air as if they have hit a small wall. Sloppiness is rather prevalent, with vehicles often seen in the distance falling from the sky into their place as the player approaches. People and vehicles sometimes appear stood in mid-air - once even a building was clearly a few feet off the ground (though a pack of C4 soon sorted that one out). None of these glitches are show stoppers though, and once the player adapts it becomes easier to avoid these niggles. One thing, however, doesn't get any easier to avoid - getting a vehicle stuck between two objects. This is possibly one of the most infuriating things that could ever happen in a game of this type, seeing as vehicle-based travel makes up 70% of the game. The player can be happily trundling along when they overshoot a turn and suddenly find themselves completely wedged between a tree and a small rock. Even though the rock is only as big as a man's fist, it seems to have the power to keep a 50 tonne tank at bay. It's a problem that needs ironing out, and though Pandemic shouldn't be scolded for this - it is their first attempt at a game like this, to be fair - they should not be let off for such sloppiness. It simply isn't acceptable. A month - maybe a few weeks - more development time could have helped to iron out these little niggles. They could have made it so the extraction chopper doesn't land on its side and explode, costing the player a fine for losing their support a stupid amount of times. But, like was said above, these problems may be annoying, but they don't ruin the game.
Mercenaries is a lot of fun. It really is still that simple. It's a pretty simple game, after all. It allows the player to experiment and gives a feeling of satisfaction in most regards. Niggling little faults and a ridiculously difficult final mission - especially compared to the relative middling difficulty of the rest of the game - drag the game back from being a true classic. With a bit more time spent on it we could have been hailing Mercenaries as the second coming, but it falls short. Even so, it cannot be stressed enough - the game is fun.